Something to Read and Share If You Care About This Damn Country

From Paul Waldman of The Washington Post:

America, you’re on your own from here on out.

That is the message President Txxxx sent over the weekend with his quartet of executive orders — a quintessential Txxxx non-solution to a monumental problem largely of his own making.

This may be the last significant action — or at least an action that pretends to be significant — that the president takes between now and Election Day to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis it has caused. And it will accomplish almost nothing.

Let’s break it down:

  • The supplemental unemployment insurance included in the Cares Act, which provided the 30 million or so Americans who have lost their jobs with an additional $600 a week, has expired. Txxxx’s order claims to restore $300 of that and asks states to chip in another $100. But it establishes a new program that could take months to implement and is potentially unconstitutional anyway, since the power to appropriate money lies with Congress, not the president.
  • Txxxx ordered the temporary suspension of payroll tax collection, an action which, if it survives legal challenge, will do practically nothing to help the economy (by definition, people who are unemployed are not on payrolls). It will, however, weaken the Social Security and Medicare systems, which are funded by payroll taxes. As written, his order only defers collection of those taxes, which means employers and employees would have to pay them back later, though Txxxx claimed that if reelected, he would “terminate” the taxes, which he also can’t do.
  • Txxxx instructed his administration to “consider” banning evictions at properties with federally owned mortgages. There is an eviction tsunami on its way that could see tens of millions of Americans lose their homes. This does nothing to prevent that.
  • Txxxx delayed interest and payment requirements for student loans until the end of the year. This is the only one of the orders that might actually help people.

So in total, these executive orders will have little impact on the economic crisis Americans are facing. But just as Txxxx claims that his handling of the pandemic itself has been a story of unmitigated success, when he performed a signing ceremony before a crowd of dues-paying members at one of his golf clubs, he said the executive orders “will take care of pretty much this entire situation.”

That was the tell. Txxxx took this step because the allegedly masterful dealmaker couldn’t be bothered to work with Congress to arrive at an agreement on a comprehensive rescue package, and now he will simply say that his work is done.

So much of how Txxxx operates was evident in this episode: claiming powers he doesn’t actually possess, issuing orders of questionable legality, lying about what they do, claiming to solve problems he hasn’t actually solved, creating worse problems over the long term and doing it because he wasn’t up to the hard work of governing. The fact that he essentially turned the announcement into an ad for one of his golf clubs — yet again seeking a way to use his office to benefit his personal financial interests — was the icing on the cake.

From this point forward, when asked about the pandemic, Txxxx will say as he has so many times before that he has done a terrific job and everything is as good as it could be. Yet while many of our peer countries are beginning to return to normal life, the United States could reach more than 200,000 deaths from covid-19 by Election Day at current rates, along with millions more infections (and as we’re learning, many people who survive the illness are left with a long and difficult recovery).

In the same way, when he’s asked about the continued economic misery in the country, he’ll say: I solved it — don’t you remember those executive orders? Everyone is thanking me because the economy is doing so great now.

Meanwhile, so many needs that an actual rescue bill ought to address are going unmet: real aid for the unemployed, aid to states and localities to save their imperiled budgets that are already leading to layoffs and slashed services, aid to schools, aid to the Postal Service that the president seems to be trying to hobble, genuine eviction protections, money to enable states to conduct a safe and secure election in November and so much more.

It’s still possible for Congress to pass such a bill, even if the president thinks it’s no longer necessary. Perhaps Republicans who have been so reluctant to provide too much assistance to the country will realize that Txxxx’s spin isn’t working and their own survival could depend on not giving up quite yet on arriving at an agreement.

All those lost lives and shattered families and shuttered businesses can’t be waved away with an absurd ceremony at a golf club. Txxxx may think they can, but the rest of us have to confront reality. And it’s only getting worse.


Fortune’s site has a “comprehensive guide to voting in all 50 states”. It’s time to register if you aren’t and then vote Democratic when you can. 

You can see if you’re registered here.

Eviction vs. Conviction

We hear a lot about criminal justice in America and how it adversely affects the lives of black men in particular. A similar story should be told about housing in America and how it adversely affects the lives of black women. Lots of black men get convicted. Lots of black women get evicted.

Katha Pollitt’s 2016 review of “Evicted”, by Matthew Desmond, in The Guardian:

What if the dominant discourse on poverty is just wrong? What if the problem isn’t that poor people have bad morals – that they’re lazy and impulsive and irresponsible and have no family values – or that they lack the skills and smarts to fit in with our shiny 21st-century economy? What if the problem is that poverty is profitable? These are the questions at the heart of Evicted, Matthew Desmond’s extraordinary ethnographic study of tenants in low-income housing in the deindustrialised middle-sized city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

You might not think that there is a lot of money to be extracted from a dilapidated trailer park or a black neighbourhood of “sagging duplexes, fading murals, 24-hour daycares”. But you would be wrong. Tobin Charney makes $400,000 a year out of his 131 trailers, some of which are little better than hovels. Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher who is one of the only black female landlords in the city, makes enough in rents on her numerous properties – some presentable, others squalid – to holiday in Jamaica and attend conferences on real estate.

Desmond follows the intertwined fortunes of eight families and a host of minor characters. Arleen Belle and Doreen Hinkston are black mothers clinging to the edge of low-wage employment; Crystal and Trisha are fragile young black women whose upbringing was violent and chaotic; Lamar is a genial black father of two who lost both his legs to frostbite when he passed out on crack in an abandoned house; Scott is a white male nurse who lost his licence when he stole opioids from his patients; Larraine, also white, is a slightly brain-damaged sweet soul. It is sometimes a little hard to keep up with the storylines as they weave in and out of the text, but no matter. What is important is that Desmond takes people who are usually seen as worthless – there is even a trailer-dweller nicknamed Heroin Susie – and shows us their full humanity, how hard they struggle to retain their dignity, humour and kindness in conditions that continually drag them down.

The main condition holding them back, Desmond argues, is rent. The standard measure is that your rent should be no more than 30% of your income, but for poor people it can be 70% or more. After he paid Sherrena his $550 rent out of his welfare cheque, Lamar had only $2.19 a day for the month. When he is forced to repay a welfare cheque he has been sent in error and falls behind on rent, he sells his food stamps for half their face value and volunteers to paint an upstairs apartment, but it is not enough. People such as Lamar live in chronic debt to their landlord, who can therefore oust them easily whenever it is convenient – if they demand repairs, for example, like Doreen, or if a better tenant comes along. Sherrena liked renting to the clients of a for-profit agency that handles – for a fee – the finances of people on disability payments who can’t manage on their own. Money from government programmes intended to help the poor – welfare, disability benefits, the earned-income tax credit – go straight into the landlord’s pocket and, ironically, fuel rising housing costs. Public housing and housing vouchers are scarce. Three in four who qualify for housing assistance get nothing.

Even in the Great Depression, evictions used to be rare. Now, each year, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of renters are put out on the street. Even a paid-up tenant can be easily evicted. Arleen loses one apartment when her son Jori throws a snowball at a passing car and the enraged driver kicks in the front door, and another when the police come after Jori when he kicks a teacher and runs home. Any kind of trouble that brings the police can lead to eviction, which means women can lose their homes if they call 911 when their man beats them up. Think about that the next time someone asks why women don’t call the cops on violent partners.

As Desmond shows, the main victims of eviction are women. Why? They are paid less than men for doing the same job. They are less able to make deals with their landlord, who is almost always a man, to work off part of their rent with manual labour. The main reason, though, is that women are raising children as single mothers. They not only have all the costs and burdens of childrearing, they need bigger apartments – which, since landlords dislike renting to families with young children, are harder to find and a lot harder to keep. Other sociologists – Kathryn Edin, for example – have found that single mothers often get help under the table from their children’s fathers, but Arleen, Doreen and Doreen’s adult daughter Patrice get mostly trouble from men, who are variously abusive, addicted, vanished or in prison. In one of the book’s many small sad moments, Arleen claims she receives child support in order to seem more stable and respectable to a prospective landlord. In fact, she gets nothing.

Desmond lays out the crucial role housing plays in creating and reinforcing white privilege. In Milwaukee, one of the most segregated cities in the US, all black people suffer from housing discrimination and all white people benefit at least a little from the racial dividend – a landlord who will rent to them but not to black people, for instance, or offer them a nicer apartment. Black people have the worst housing in the worst neighbourhoods – the great fear of the trailer-park people, who are all white, is that they will end up on the black side of town. Eviction hits black women hardest of all, and the bleak benches of housing courts, which deal with disputes between landlords and tenants, are full of black women and their children: “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighbourhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”

An evicted woman watches as a removal company moves her property out of her rented apartment on to the pavement.
An evicted woman watches as employees of a storage company remove her belongings to place them on the pavement in front of her rented apartment. Photograph: Sally Ryan/Zuma Press/Corbis

What are the social costs of eviction? It puts incredible stress on families. It prevents people from saving the comparatively small sums that would let them stabilise their situation. They are always starting over from scratch, losing their possessions in the chaos of removal, or putting them in storage and losing them when they can’t pay the fees. An eviction on your record makes the next apartment harder to get. Eviction damages children, who are always changing schools, giving up friends and toys and pets – and living with the exhaustion and depression of their parents. We watch Jori go from a sweet, protective older brother to an angry, sullen boy subject to violent outbursts who is falling way behind in school.

Eviction makes it hard to keep up with the many appointments required by the courts and the byzantine welfare system: several characters have their benefits cut because notices are sent to the wrong address. Eviction destroys communities: when people move frequently, they don’t form the social bonds and pride in place that encourage them to care for their block and look out for their neighbours. “With Doreen’s eviction, Thirty-Second Street lost a steadying presence – someone who loved and invested in the neighbourhood, who contributed to making the block safer – but Wright Street didn’t gain one.”

“There is an enormous amount of pain and poverty in this rich land,” Desmond writes in his conclusion. That is easy to say, and many books by journalists and academics have done so. By examining one city through the microscopic lens of housing, however, he shows us how the system that produces that pain and poverty was created and is maintained. I can’t remember when an ethnographic study so deepened my understanding of American all and safeguarding our independence.